New Nevada County court offers alternative for dealing with ‘quality of life’ crimes
The concept is so new that it doesn’t even have an official name — and it is still an evolving collaboration.
But a new alternative court had its inaugural session in the Nevada County Courthouse on July 7, with four homeless clients selected by Hospitality House and Sierra Roots who are trying to clear their backlog of misdemeanors and infractions.
Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson presided, with Deputy Public Defender Jody Schutz and District Attorney Cliff Newell working together with case managers.
“Based on the reaction of the participants, they are very relieved there is a method to deal with something they thought was unsurmountable,” Anderson said.
It’s all part of a bigger plan, Anderson said, which includes law enforcement in Nevada City and Grass Valley getting more proactive in dealing with what have been termed “quality of life” crimes — panhandling, loitering, public drunkenness, trespassing. That bigger plan involves taking steps to help folks get back to a normal lifestyle, Anderson said. The new court will offer defendants relief from prosecution, but they have to earn that relief — possibly through community service or through agreeing to a case management plan.
According to Schutz, Hospitality House first came to her in January 2013 to discuss possibly setting up a homeless or community intervention court. This was intended to expand on the biannual homeless count at which a public defender shows up and helps deal with legal issues.
“Hospitality House approached us to see if we could do something more permanent,” she said.
In late February, Schutz met with Anderson and representatives from Hospitality House and Sierra Roots to brainstorm the possibilities.
“We have been deferring naming the court as it is somewhat of an expanding idea,” she said.
The first session, on July 7, was called a voluntary court. Clients referred by Hospitality House or Sierra Roots were asked to commit to community service or a case management plan, in order to resolve fines and release holds on licenses, for example. There will be quarterly session for now, with the next scheduled for Sept. 15. Clients cannot resolve crimes of violence — they must be infractions or low-level misdemeanor offenses.
“In addition to doing community service to address fines and to give back to the community, we are encouraging them to address the underlying causes of their homelessness,” Schutz said.
“If there is substance abuse, get into outpatient treatment or attend NA or AA. If you have medical issues, make and keep a doctor’s appointment.”
There are discussions under way to expand this court to set up a “qualify of life” or community intervention court that would allow law enforcement to directly refer citations and arrests to that specific court.
Schutz and Anderson have met with Grass Valley Police Officer Clint Lovelady and Nevada City Police Officer Shane Franssen to discuss the possibility of expansion — to not just cite people, but to work within the case management model.
Both police departments sent officers on a training that included visiting cities with similar programs.
“The best program I saw was in Santa Barbara, where the city created some enhancements for some of these crimes, that don’t have a lot of teeth,” Franssen said.
Infractions just go to collections, typically, and many of those cited don’t care, Franssen said, adding, “I’ve had people wad up and throw away my tickets.
“We have people who are the cause of constant calls for service,” Franssen said. “We’re tired of the revolving door — we arrest some people on a daily basis, and they’re content with being in that situation. We’re trying to break that cycle. It’s a drain on resources, if they’re not motivated to change.”
Franssen hopes that if some of those quality of life crimes that are infractions can be enhanced to misdemeanors, which could lead to jail time and escalating penalties, some of the worst offenders could be motivated to change their patterns of behavior.
“The idea is, once we get harsher penalties in place, we also give them options — say rehab instead of jail time,” he said. “The goal is to motivate them, to get them one step better — get them off rock bottom.
Toward that end, Franssen said, he and Lovelady are networking with agencies like CoRR and with Behavioral Health.
“If we have that in place, with the right people working together, to get them the help they need, get them in the system — that’s the goal,” he said. “It’s been extremely successful in other cities. It’s just a matter of getting everybody on the same page.”
Grass Valley Police Lt. Alex Gammelgard said Lovelady has been freed from a normal patrol beat to serve as a “strategic resource” officer and as a liaison with the homeless. Lovelady’s role, Gammelgard said, is to work in partnership with all the stakeholders, which include service providers and business owners, to educate the community and enlist support.
“He will be able to focus his time more on identifying problems and crime trends, and individuals who negatively impact the quality of life for residents, business owners and visitors to our community,” Gammelgard said. “The key is that we’re targeting criminal activity, regardless of socioeconomic status or living situation.”
The new court will serve as an alternative to the traditional model of “citation equals fine,” Gammelgard said, with the ultimate goal of reducing recidivism.
Franssen recognizes that fear can’t be the only motivation, saying that’s where offering community service — such as camp cleanups — would come in.
“Citing them and taking them to jail, that revolving door is clearly not working,” he said. “We want to try to get them help and get them off the streets. We want to create the motivation, and have the resources in place to help that process.
“I think it’s going to be huge for us — this could have a really good impact.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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